Academic Writing Tips_PrepMaven

Academic Writing Tips: 9 Myths Debunked

There are a lot of rumors out there about academic writing. Here's the thing: most of them aren’t true!

Writing essays is always a tricky process: there are so many unanswered questions.

  • Should I use “I” in my essay?
  • Should I use a thesaurus to boost my vocabulary?
  • What should I write in my conclusion?

Part of the problem is how much advice out there. And that advice is often contradictory, misleading, or downright wrong, and it makes figuring out the right way to write an essay really hard. 

In this post, we provide the academic writing tips you need to succeed.

We debunk 9 common misconceptions about academic writing. We offer alternatives that are grounded in years of experience tutoring students, teaching English, and our own experiences in college courses.

After reading this, you’ll walk away with a more cohesive understanding of academic writing, regardless of the subject or grade-level!

Here's what we cover:


Myth #1: An academic essay should be exactly five paragraphs long

This is flat-out wrong. It’s a rule that middle school teachers came up with to simplify essay writing for younger students, and somehow, it stuck.

For high school and college writing, there’s not a grain of truth in it. In reality, you need as many paragraphs as logically makes sense for your essay. 

What does that mean?

It means that each paragraph should include one coherent idea, backed up with evidence. How many sub-ideas do you have in your essay? Two? Six? That’s how many paragraphs you should have, plus an introduction and conclusion.

Here’s a good rule of thumb to go by: make sure each paragraph is no longer than one double-spaced page and no shorter than about eight sentences.

Why eight? You need to fit in your topic sentence, lead up to your evidence, evidence, analysis, your evidence and analysis again, and your conclusion.

Another one is that you should write double the amount of analysis as you have evidence. You really want to break your evidence down and connect it to your thesis. 

Myth #2: Your thesis can’t be more than one sentence

It’s true that your thesis comes at the end of your introductory paragraph. But that it can only be your last sentence is not.

Sure, a teacher might require you to make your thesis one sentence for certain assignments, but that’s just an exercise in making you think more concisely.

Ultimately, the longer and more complex an essay is, the longer your thesis statement is likely to be.

Consider these two examples:

  • In this passage, Fitzgerald uses diction, imagery, and symbol to convey the all-consuming nature of Gatsby’s idealistic, yet grotesque dream that leads to the ultimate tragedy of his death. 
  • It is possible that contact can reduce conflict, but under conditions that are hard to find in Ukrainian society, at least. People do manage to maintain relationships that cut across fundamental differences of opinion throughout Ukraine. But when identity cleavages are salient and people hold strong political opinions, it is particularly difficult for people to maintain relationships across difference. This is a significant barrier to reducing intergroup conflict and political polarization. 

The first was the thesis from a five-page English essay; the second, the thesis statement of a 100-page senior thesis at Princeton.

Both are absolutely appropriate, depending on the context of the essay they belong to. The ultimate goal here is for you to explain the main idea of your essay as briefly and clearly as possible, but without dropping the complexity. Now, if you have a fairly simple idea for a fairly short essay and you take five sentences to express it, then we have a problem.... 

Myth #3: Your title is just the name of the book you’re writing about

Ally’s English Essay

The Great Gatbsy

~Love~

All bad titles share two common traits: they are lame and unspecific. Bad titles generally fall into one of the three iterations above.

Either it’s just the title of the book the essay is based on (no, you did not write The Great Gatsby yourself), a generic topic, or worse, some version of “My English Essay.”

Luckily, there is a pretty clear template for how to write a strong title that will set the tone for the rest of your essay. While this isn’t the only way to do it, this is a sure-fire way to come up with a good one.

Separate your title into two parts—the creative part and the informative part. Separate the two parts with a colon, like this:

Destroyed by a Dream: Fatal Illusions in The Great Gatsby

Before we break down each part, I will say that I always write my titles last. At that point, I have the clearest idea of what sub-idea I’m narrowing in on in the essay.

For the title, you want to get as specific as you can about your idea. Don’t make your title about love when your essay is about the way that gender roles affect the way different characters express love. Instead, allow your title to reflect the full depth of your thinking. 

Now, how do you actually write the thing?

The first part of your title should be a catchy or clever version of your core idea. One common way to make it catchy is to use alliteration (use words that start with the same letter), as in the example above. Another way is to use figurative language, such as a metaphor, simile, or irony.

The following title uses irony to get at the point of that essay, which is that there’s actually wisdom in those who seem the most foolish. 

Wise Man Folly: How Folly Wins Us Over in Praise of Folly

The second part of the title should be more straightforward and clear. No need to pull out all the bells and whistles. Just state your (complex, nuanced) idea as clearly as you can without dropping the nuance. 

Next, a note about mechanics and formatting. Always include the text, film, or other work you’re focusing on in the title and properly format it. You’ll notice that the two essays above were about books, and the titles of those books were italicized or underlined. If it’s a short story title, put it in “quotes.”

And don’t forget to capitalize each word of the title, except those pesky little words like ‘of’ or ‘an.’ Learn more about how your title should be formatted here

Finally, don’t go pull out all your hair about your title. If you can’t think of a creative way to introduce your idea after thinking about it for twenty minutes, it’s fine. Just leave it.  A well-worded title that accurately reflects your thesis is all you really need. The rest is just bonus points.

The straightforward title below would work just fine:

The Role of the Devil’s Mocking Advice in Faust

Myth #4: The only way to write a hook is to deploy a cheesy, overused formula

The purpose of a hook is to capture the reader’s attention and make them curious about your idea.

The worst way to do that is by using a cliche hook that’s been done million times before. Have you ever thought about CRISPR-Cas 9 technology? I wouldn’t want to after reading that hook.

There are a few options to go with for stronger hooks:

  • Use a compelling quote. (Not a quote from the text you’re focusing on, but a quote on the topic.)

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Albert Einstein

According to Albert Einstein, one of the world’s most famous physicists, vegetarianism is the single most beneficial choice that a human being can make. 

  • A powerfully worded statement can capture the reader’s attention, without unnecessary bells and whistles.

As we advance into the 21st century, new technologies and treatments are promising to help cure diseases that humanity has had to deal with for millenia. However, with each new advancement comes the dangerous temptation to play God. 

Here’s a few more hook ideas:

  • Statistic 
  • Anecdote
  • Description 

And don’t forget the most important part— looping your hook into the rest of your introduction. So many hooks just float at the top, without any explanation after.

The point of the introduction is to smoothly transition from the hook to the context needed to understand the topic, ultimately funneling down to the argument. 

Myth #5: You don’t need to cite a source if you didn’t quote it directly

You only need those pesky parenthetical citations or footnotes if you quote your source directly, right? Wrong. Whenever you get information that is not common knowledge, you need to cite it.

The sky is blue— common knowledge, you’re good.

But information you found by reading a source and then internalized? You need to cite it. 

Check out this example: 

  • In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop analyzes decades of data to conclude that Americans have been residentially segregating themselves into neighborhoods and counties based on several identity characteristics including race, education, age, wages and political views (Bishop). 

In that sentence, I am summarizing the argument of Bill Bishop’s book. By citing, I give credit where credit is due and allow readers to check the source out for themselves. Citing everything gets really important by the time you get to college, where consequences for plagiarism can be intense, whether you meant to plagiarize or not. 

This also has the benefit of putting your essay in conversation with other academic sources. In other words, it helps answer the question of how what you’ve written relates to what’s already out there.

This is something that’s required of college students, but isn’t really taught in high school, so good to get a head start on this skill. For the most comprehensive guide to citations, take a look at the guide from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

This website got me through my undergrad thesis! 

Myth #6: When you do quote directly, you can just pop your quote in wherever you want

Leaving your quote without introducing it or explaining it is like offering lunch meat without the bread on either side. In other words, no one will get it. 

To sandwich your quotes, introduce them first and add analysis after. There are three main ways to properly introduce your quotes:

  • Seamlessly as part of the sentence. Cut apart your quote, keep the most important parts, and create a sentence to fit the quote piece in. To make it work, you might need to use ellipses (…) or change the tense of a word using brackets [ ]. 

This is also true for political identities: in what is called “value homophily,” adults show a “considerable tendency to…associate with those of their own political affiliation” (12).

  • With a colon or long dash. You can find a long dash in Google Docs by going to Insert -> Special character and searching for the “em dash.” 

Wartime political mobilization and polarization reshape identities and social networks, fracturing communities and fostering segregation—“former neighbors are shunned and coloyalists favored” (13).

  • With a comma

But, Stella is shown to be humble about her living space and doesn't see anything wrong with it when she says, "Aren't you being a little intense about it? It's not that bad at all!" (20). 

Myth #7: Bigger words = better grades

Despite my immaculate anxiety, I knew I was involuntarily mandated to exuviate my meekness...

There’s word vomit, and then there’s thesaurus word vomit. You know what I’m talking about. It’s when the words don’t quite fit the context and there’s a lot of them over 10 letters long. Don’t be a thesaurus word vomiter. 

Here are two things to consider instead of popping open the thesaurus tab as you write your essay. 

First, what are you actually trying to say? The worst wordiness comes from an attempt to overcompensate for a lack of ideas. If your ideas are complex, rich, and nuanced, then you won’t need overwrought vocabulary to make them seem complex. The most impressive essays actually take complicated ideas and put them simply. 

Second, there is something to content-relevant vocabulary. Some concepts can only be expressed through certain words. Take this example from my own thesis: 

  • Developed by Muzafer Sherif in the late 1960’s, the functionalist theory posits that conflict arises when groups compete for limited economic, political, or social resources; the consequence is in-group bias and outgroup antagonism.

There’s quite a few “big words” in there: outgroup antagonism, functionalist theory. But they’re all 100% relevant to the academic topic of the essay.

Those terms are so complicated that they each get multiple paragraphs in the thesis to describe what they mean. So those words are the most succinct way to express the concepts, not the other way around. When writing your essay, think about what academic vocabulary is necessary for your topic, and lean into those words.

Myth #8: Wait… can I use “I”?

Sigh. This is a tricky one. Usually, the answer is no. I often see students mistakenly use “I” in the argument of the essay:

  • I believe that CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology will spell the end of fair access to medical care as we know it.

In these cases, do not use “I." It undermines your argument, which you’re trying to prove is true across the board, with evidence from other authors to back you up. It’s already implied that this is your argument; no need to remind people of that. It’s much stronger to put it this way, without using “I”:

  • CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology will spell the end of fair access to medical care as we know it.

However, there are a few cases where using “I” is appropriate.

In particular, it makes sense to use “I” when you’re writing about personal experiences you have related to the topic. For example, in the introduction to my undergraduate thesis, I used “I” to write about the way polarization affected my family’s relationships (I was writing about how polarization affected other people’s relationships). A researcher might use “I” to describe her experiencing interviewing people for the essay. 

If you’re still itching to do it, try replacing “I” with “this essay.” It still sounds professional and can be a good way to signal a key point. Like this: 

  • This essay argues that CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology will spell the end of fair access to medical care as we know it.

Myth #9: Your conclusion is just a summary of your essay

Correction: a weak conclusion is just a summary of the essay.

Don’t get me wrong. It is important to drive home what your main point is. But don’t stop there.

The conclusion is an opportunity to leave readers brooding over the big-picture ramifications of your argument. It should be a twist, but not such a dramatic one that it feels like a completely new topic.

Get out of the world of literary devices and think about why your topic matters. For this to land, you really have to believe it.

Here’s an example from that Great Gatsby essay that relates the topic (fatal illusions) to people’s fascination with celebrity failures:  

  • While Fitzgerald crafts a tale that cautions the reader against living in an idealistic dream, he also glorifies the characters that do so. Because each character destroyed by his grand illusion suffers a tragedy and winds up being an utter failure, one would expect the reader to finish the novel wishing they had never read about such unlikeable characters in the first place. However, this is not that case as The Great Gatsby is one of America’s most acclaimed and most influential novels. The characters are irresistible to the reader because of their elaborate homes, glamorous lifestyles, and great wealth. Akin to modern-day celebrities, the public can’t help but be simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by the stars’ disastrous lives. Even Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, who claims that Gatsby represents everything that he hates, idolizes Gatsby and makes him a tragic hero. Knowing the tragic flaws of the characters does not stop the reader’s desire to become one of them. Even more than a desire for glamour, a human thirst for drama fuels the reader’s hope that they too might become a beautiful tragedy.   

If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: 

There is no formula for the perfect essay. No set number of paragraphs, no set number of direct quotes, no way to thesaurus your way to an A+.

The truth is, a strong essay comes from thinking deeply about your topic first. Once you have a good idea, you can intuit the rest with common sense, a little practice, and some guidance. 


Ally

Ally graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton University, and her undergraduate thesis earned her an award for best thesis on any subject in political science. After completing Princeton’s Program for Teacher Preparation, Ally taught high school English for several years, led creative writing and test prep courses, and tutored students in all things humanities. She knows that great teaching requires more than just an understanding of the material– she builds relationships with students, makes content relevant, and gives thorough feedback.